“It feels like everything could tip very quickly”: Naomi Klein takes on the climate crisis

Klein, who has done more to popularise the inseparability of capitalism and climate change than perhaps any other author, talks Extinction Rebellion and mainstream environmentalism.


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Twenty years ago, Naomi Klein’s No Logo was published on the crest of swelling unease about economic globalisation. Her analysis raged against corporate greed, sweat-shop labour and an increasingly voracious marketing culture that seemed to absorb all forms of critique.

In November 1999, while the book was still at the printers, thousands of activists shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in protest at a financial system of deregulated capitalism that was taking the world by storm. No Logo became a manifesto for the anti-globalisation zeitgeist that would define grassroots politics for the next decade.

The book foreshadowed crazy ideas: corporations were becoming more powerful than governments, and one day you could become your own global brand. Yet the world that Klein foretold has now come into being.

“What’s more powerful now… is the idea that every single person has to be their own brand, and the application of the logic of corporate branding to our very selves. It’s an insidious change that has everything to do with social media,” Klein tells me when we meet in London. The superbrands of the late Nineties were easy to identify; now, digital technology has made it less possible than ever to live a life unmediated by corporate power.

Klein is in London promoting her new book, On Fire, a crescendo of essays from the past ten years that concludes with an argument for the Green New Deal. The proposal, which encompasses dramatic increases in green energy investment and green jobs creation, is gaining political sway on both sides of the Atlantic.

We meet for coffee in the bar of an expensive hotel that smells like pot-pourri; outside, Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters are defying a ban initiated by the Metropolitan Police. The fortnight preceding our meeting, XR activists seized central London in a string of colourful uprisings. “It feels like one of those moments where everything could tip very quickly,” she tells me. “This is not tapping into people who saw themselves as climate activists – it’s tapping into something much broader.”

Klein, 49, has done more to popularise the inseparability of capitalism and climate change than perhaps any other author. In a series of books published over the past decade, she documented the human costs of ecological plunder and argued that environmental breakdown is rooted in capitalism’s quest for perpetual growth. “We have a handful of years to turn this around, and in those handful of years, I’m all in, all the time,’’ she says. Listening to her, it’s possible to feel a sense of calm; where much of the discourse about climate change redounds to the apocalyptic script of a climate-fiction novel, she has a resolute sense not only of what’s at stake, but of how we might fix it.

Klein has long railed against the dangers of “disaster capitalism”. In The Shock Doctrine (2007), she traced how elites exploited national crises and natural disasters to push through free-market policies. Today, she worries that without a concrete plan, climate activists may leave open the door to a similar possibility. “I’m extremely wary of just asking powerful interests to declare [a] climate emergency, and deferring the question of what we mean by climate action,” she says.

Though Klein commends XR, which has forced the UK government to declare a climate emergency and commit to citizens’ assemblies, she worries that “asking those in power to declare an emergency and waiting to articulate what their solutions should be” could open up a “vacuum”. “The time for simply calling for ‘action’, amorphous action, has passed,” she adds.

Mainstream environmentalism has long been criticised for being too elite, too concerned with pristine wilderness and charismatic species, and too apathetic to the reality that environmental harms are distributed along poverty and race lines.

In the US, for example, people of colour live with 66 per cent more air pollution than white citizens. Klein’s contention is that we should be learning from the movements at the front lines of environmental change.

One senses her frustration at big environmental groups that have avoided talking about the economic roots of climate breakdown. “The most well-funded green groups in the world are more focused on wilderness; they’re more focused on animals, on conservation. They take a tonne of money from fossil fuel companies, mining companies, and their whole business model is to shake down the extractive sectors and banks, and to… protect patches of wilderness,” Klein says.

Fixating on “nature” and “wilderness” rather than the ground under our feet can descend into something more troubling: the protection of a nativist social order. In On Fire, Klein argues that we’re already living through the dawn of climate barbarism, with terrorists such as the Christchurch gunman openly identifying as “eco-fascists”. “There’s a strong strain of ‘close it down, protect our own’,’’ she says. “Hypernationalism and native protectionism [are] a very likely outcome in many majority-white countries.”

“People know, whether they link it to climate change or not, that we are in an era of mass migration and that the space in which it is going to be safe for humans to live on this planet is contracting. It will continue to contract,” she says. “This is why it’s important to have a plan.” SOURCE

Activist Naomi Klein talks global climate justice imperative

naomi-klein-warsaw-nov-19-2008-fot-mariusz-kubik-05
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When Naomi Klein looks at the world today, she sees flames. There are three “fires” that the global community is facing, she told an audience at Richardson Auditorium on Tuesday, and they are increasingly converging.

Klein gave introductory remarks before speaking with Assistant Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor about Klein’s new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.” She is a Canadian journalist and activist widely known for her biting indictments of capitalism and globalization.

The first “fire” that Klein identified is the central concern of her book: climate change.

She cited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, which laid out both a plan and a deadline for global leaders to stave off climate chaos. The plan, Klein said, was an “‘unprecedented transformation in virtually every aspect of society,’ in energy, in agriculture, in transportation, in building construction.” The deadline was twelve years, now down to eleven — what Klein described as a “very, very, very short window.”

“Any of us who focus even tangentially on what we’re hearing from climate scientists knows that what we do or don’t do in the next handful of years will determine the lives and fates of hundreds of millions of people,” Klein said.

The second “fire,” Klein said, is a political one.

She pointed to the ascendancy of populist leaders in the U.S., Brazil, the Philippines, India, Australia, and Russia. In each of these countries, Klein said, politicians are defining national in-groups against a “sharply defined out-group, inside the respective countries and outside, on the borders … the illegal, the illegitimate, the frightening other.”

And these two fires — the “political and the planetary” — are linked, Klein added.

“I think they are feeding each other,” she told the audience. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the very moment when the reality of climate breakdown ceases to be some future, abstract threat off in the indeterminate distance and becomes a lived reality, that at this very moment we have the global phenomenon of the rise of these strongmen figures, riling up hatred, turning populations against each other, using this fear and sense of scarcity.”

Politicians like President Donald Trump and President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro are facilitating rather than fighting climate change, Klein said, from relaxed environmental regulation in the United States to wildfires rippling across the Amazon. Meanwhile, climate events are having the most devastating impact in other countries, those without the infrastructure and resources to adequately deal with them.

Klein argued that this imbalance has “created the cruel irony that the very people who are forced to move first are the people who did the least to create this crisis.”

“They deserve not just asylum but an apology,” she added.

Rather than asylum and apologies, however, Klein claimed that powerful countries are responding to climate change with a model of economic development that profits off of climate refugees. She traced the origin of this model from the “Island Solution” in Australia to criminalization of migrants in the E.U. to the treatment of immigrants at the U.S. border.

The result, Klein asserted, is “climate barbarism,” a me-first response to climate change that entails cutting down on foreign aid and funneling money into the containment of climate refugees.

But there is an important alternative, she argued, to the policies of climate barbarism, and it lies in the “third fire”: the global climate justice movement.

This fire is being stoked by Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement, and it is proliferating, Klein stated, gaining followers in an exponential and unprecedented fashion. In September, over seven million people took to the streets in worldwide climate strikes.

“There is incredible urgency in the fires that have been lit in this coming generation, and they’re trying to light fires in the generation that came before them,” Klein said.

Klein also emphasized that the global climate movement needs to be intersectional in order to match the demands of “intersecting crises” in political, economic, and social realms. In this sense, the radical scope of these crises presents an opportunity for a radical re-envisioning of society’s most basic yet problematic structures — a central argument in her book.

“It’s going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair, all at the same time,” Klein read from the introduction to her book.

In conversation with Klein, Assistant Professor Taylor asked what factors have contributed to the sudden, rapid visibility of the climate movement, particularly in the United States. Klein said that the lived experience of climate change — hotter, longer summers; wildfires in California — are helping to bring urgency to the movement, along with publicized scientific reports and collective action.

Klein and Taylor also discussed the role that climate policies are playing in the 2020 election. Klein critiqued Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent interpretation of climate change as an issue of political corruption, emphasizing instead that it is inextricably linked to capitalism. She also said that Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Green New Deal” proposal is the most internationally focused.

But across the slate of Democratic candidates, the unprecedented attention given to climate policy indicates an “absolute sea change” in the way we are approaching the climate crisis, Klein emphasized.

“Just a few months ago we were talking about whether we can get Republicans on board for a revenue neutral carbon tax,” she said. “This really is a shift.” MORE

Naomi Klein: The Struggles Against Climate Change and Racism Are Inseparable

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaks to hundreds in Union Square in New York City on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria.
Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaks to hundreds in Union Square in New York City on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria.ERIK MCGREGOR / PACIFIC PRESS/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Naomi Klein, author of the new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, talks about solutions to the climate crisis, Greta Thunberg, birth strikes and how she finds hope.

Natalie Hanman: Why are you publishing this book now?

Naomi Klein: I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don’t think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It’s more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that’s always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What’s stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it’s the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we’ve got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what’s left, we’ve got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we’re not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there are going to be benefits: we’ll have more livable cities, we’ll have less polluted air, we’ll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we’re not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We’re talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we’re in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don’t we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don’t think it’s coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism. MORE